All Behavior Makes Sense: A Spectrum Approach

All behavior makes sense, is a conflict resolution premise (see Persinger, 2004, Mediate.com). A person, in their mind, is behaving in a manner consistent with their perceptions, beliefs, values and interests. This behavior, however, may be a complete mystery to observers. A person makes choices about their actions, words and attitudes based on their rationalization of the five sensory and intuitive inputs. Each choice they make is plucked from a spectrum of choices constructed by the rational mind, based on forecasts of possible reaction(s), levels of trust and consequence(s). An observer, a friend, family member, colleague, disputing party may observe the manifestation of this behavioral choice as a normal and expected, or as utterly mysterious or even completely irrational (i.e. off the map). However, all behavior makes sense, usually, once the observer understands the spectrum of choices constructed by the deciding person and their rationalization for making the choice. When you are asking yourself “what the heck is going on here” or “boy this seems to come out of left field” in a negotiation or mediation, I encourage you to pause, and be curious, rather than bite the hook and react immediately. The power of a good question(s) may help unravel the mystery of the behavioural choice being made by others, and ultimately assist you in navigating or partially influencing the highly complex human interaction(s) between two or more people making choices along the spectrum.


This essay will first explore a theoretical example of a spectrum of possible behaviours and why individuals may select a choice and then defend their decision (i.e. cognitive dissonance) to others, and finally how others perceive the decision. Next, this essay proposes how this tool can be used to debrief negotiations or mediations, and to further develop strategies. What does this all mean in our day-to-day world? How can spectrum analysis be used to understand our own behavior and that of others, and to make contingency plans depending on the probability of likely choice we assign to each choice on the spectrum? I make two assumptions for this essay which define a scope that I am capable of exploring. First, I assume that individuals are of sane mind (although a touch of irrationality can make for creative and entertaining negotiations), and secondly I lean toward altruistic well intentioned behaviour. Ultimately this essay is a tool for understanding human behavior in the context of personal and business interactions, negotiations, or mediations. As a word of caution this tool has its limitations and dangers, and they all relate to the mystery of human complexity and the greyness of human rationalization. The tool proposed here is not prescriptive or predictive, rather at best it is estimative.

Spectrum of Behavior


A hypothetical spectrum of behaviour observed in a negotiation or mediation session is presented in Table 1, along with qualities of engagement such as levels of trust and information sharing characterize each level. Each individual may not consciously pause to construct or furthermore choose from a spectrum of possible behaviours. Furthermore, their choice may seem to be immediate, rushed, or premature, however I argue that this underlying spectrum of choice is there, and is helpful to understand if you are negotiating or mediating a dispute. This spectrum of possible reactions to another party’s behavior is absolutely situation specific, and will depend on body language, tone of voice, choice of words, culture and the parties’ level of trust with each other, based on their past experience. Each person will have their own unique spectrum of possibilities, and thus for the purposes of this essay, I have presented one, that may be typical example, as a reference for further discussion. I do not assume this is a benchmark, rather just a useful example.

Behavioral spectrums can be used in the following ways, within the scope of this essay:


  • A self awareness tool to assess how you make choices in certain private or group discussions , prepare your options in future situations, and also to analyse your patterns of choice;
  • A negotiation assessment tool which can help you as a negotiator assess the other party’s negotiation behavior, and then to help you modify your negotiation style based on the observed behaviors.
  • As a mediation assessment tool to help you as a mediator to assess patterns of behavior between disputant parties, which then can be reflected back to them in a manner that gives them neutral constructive feedback on how effective their style is in achieving a wise agreement. Furthermore the mediator can help the parties explore why they make certain behavioral choices in the context of levels of trust between the negotiating parties.


Noticing and the Power of a good question

We are responsible for our own communications style and tone, and I encourage you to pause in the moment and be curious of other’s communication behavior. In the pause, there is the potential to make your own personal choice of where you want to be on the spectrum when interacting with others, and also the potential to influence the creation of a collaborative climate by asking a good question (e.g. “I am curious about what history has lead you to such a steadfast position?”, reframing (e.g. “Your passionate plea, leads me to believe we both share a common interest to resolve this issue.”), or simply by noticing the others behaviour in a factual reflection. A good question will stop you in your tracks, and reflect. Most negotiators and mediators are familiar with reframing questions, and thus I would like for focus on what I call “noticing”. Noticing is a neutral observation of facts, reflected back immediately after the behaviour. The premise is that humans are intelligent and will put one plus one together, and generally arrive at a reasonable conclusion without asking: “Why are you doing that, it is really hypocritical”, for instance. A noticing question may look like: “I noticed that you put a ‘take it or leave it’ on the table just now, and yesterday you said to the other party: ‘you did not want to pressure them into a bad deal.’” Now, just pause and see if the party genuinely reflects, if not, then keep providing noticing feedback. A stronger intervention may be necessary, if the noticing seems unfruitful. For example, a good noticing question may produce cognitive dissonance by pointing out (i.e. unmasking) that a person’s behaviour seems inconsistent with their expressed beliefs: “Earlier you said that you had a rule that you would not buy something unless you had the cash to pay for it, and now you are advocating for a deficit budget. Why? Your behaviour seems inconsistent with your words?”. (1) If the party enters into an eloquent rationalization of their dissonant beliefs then you know you have asked a powerful question.


Conclusion:


Human behavior is complex, and I am not an expert. Thus this spectrum is meant to be a communication tool used with a measure of caution. Although, there is great value in having a framework which encourages negotiators and mediators to give pause, in the moment, and to make conscious collaborative choices, or to reflect on the other party’s choices. Furthermore, it is a tool for teams to debrief negotiations, and for mediators to provide feedback and coaching by reflecting back to the participants where they may be on the spectrum (e.g. “The negotiation really hovered around level F, but your good probing questions and open approach really seemed to encourage the other party to move to level E.”). Where did you expect them to land on the spectrum, and where did they actually land? It can also be a useful tool to debrief cognitive dissonance (e.g. “They said they were not concerned about climate change, and so I did not expect them to suggest a voluntary reduction in carbon emissions.”). Remember, pausing in the moment and showing genuine curiosity about what is going on, can be a powerful way to start influencing behavior on the spectrum to a more collaborative place.


End Notes


(1) According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior ( http://tip.psychology.org/festinge.html).


Further Reading:


All Behavior Makes Sense. 2004. Trime Persinger, Mediate.com


Where is the trust? Using trust-based mediation for First Nations dispute resolution. MD Blackstock – Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 2001 – JOSSEY-BASS


Cognitive Dissonance. 2003. Phil Barker. http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/cognitive_dissonance/

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Michael Blackstock

Michael Blackstock is principal of Oxygen Communications and provides mediation and communication coaching in cross-cultural conflicts. MORE >

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